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Q&A: Rick Perlstein on Ronald Reagan and His New Book, ‘The Invisible Bridge’

The historian talks about the myths and gifts of Ronald Reagan, his influence on Obama, and the infantilization of American politics.

I missed the 1970s by six months. Growing up, they were always a black hole, neither history nor present, something no one seemed interested in talking about. The Depression, the Greatest Generation, postwar prosperity, the tensions and promise of the 1960s—those were there in books and family stories. The period right before I was born? Mysterious.

Reading Rick Perlstein’s latest book, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, I started to get a sense of why that might be. It covers the chaotic years between Watergate and the election of Jimmy Carter, a terrifyingly unsettled period of recrimination, recession, terrorism, and collapse. The strains of current American politics (in both senses) had been set in motion, like the emergence of social conservatives as an electoral force and the nascent post-New Deal, neoliberal Democrats, but neither party had a grasp on them, a central figure, or a plan.

As The Invisible Bridge immersed me in those years, the 1980s started to feel like coming home from school after mommy and daddy have been fighting, a conflict quickly ended that would return in successively more powerful waves. No wonder no one wanted to talk about it.

I spoke with Perlstein about what I missed and the myths that replaced that history; how the parties and politicians we see today are its troubled children; and what we, including our president, have and haven’t learned from it.

I came in with the expectation that The Invisible Bridge would be Rick Perlstein’s Reagan book, after Goldwater and Nixon. But it’s as much about the interregnum between Nixon and Reagan as it is Reagan himself; the bridge.

Really, my subject is us. The electorate. The political culture. The leaders we choose, to my mind, serve an analytical purpose of figuring out what our dreams, desires, anxieties, and fears are. Why was Ronald Reagan attractive to people coming out of the 1970s? Why was Richard Nixon attractive to people after the 1960s?

Why was Barack Obama attractive to people in 2008? If you think about Barack Obama, there’s all this anxiety about society, just kind of wracked by centripetal forces—the idea that the center’s not holding, no one can talk to each other, the idea of a political system that’s broken. And here comes this guy, born in Hawaii, grew up in Kansas, father from Kenya, who seems to unite all opposites. And wears that commitment on his sleeve: Dreams of My Father, it’s about his struggle for identity. The reason he’s so attractive to so many people, the reason his story becomes their story, is because they’re feeling those same anxieties, and that he can transcend that dilemma.

In the same way, Richard Nixon was so exciting to so many people because they felt the same resentments that he felt since he was a kid—the swells, the sophisticates, the cosmopolitans, the liberals were looking down their noses at what he called the Silent Majority. The ordinary Joe, Archie Bunker, who works hard, plays by the rules, Richard Nixon assures them that they’re right and he’s going to stick it to the bad guys.

In Ronald Reagan’s case, he always bore with him this extraordinary ability to radiate confidence, optimism, clarity, a blitheness of spirit, in what other people saw as chaos. And after the 1970s, that was catnip.

One of the projects of the book is to describe that sense of chaos that was all around us. A chaos that I feel, in some ways, was kind of redemptive. It was teaching Americans to think in a new way about the questions of patriotism in the country.

Ronald Reagan’s achievement, whether you agree with it as a positive or negative thing, was to rescue this crystalline clarity from all the chaos.

The thing that really emphasized how chaotic this era, that I just missed, was the two back-to-back assassination attempts on Gerald Ford.

The assassins who couldn’t even shoot straight. That was the ’70s: no one could accomplish anything. Gerald Ford couldn’t walk down a set of stairs without falling down, and his assassins couldn’t even get a shot off.

Thinking about it in the context of the present day, and the 24/7 news cycle, if there were back-to-back assassination attempts on Obama, it would seem like the apocalypse. 

It would have felt like the ground had swallowed up everything that was sure and safe.

And think about on whose behalf these assassination attempts were made. The first one, by Squeaky Fromme, was an attempt to free Charles Manson, a mass murderer and violent cult leader. The second was done by Sarah Jane Moore, this former housewife. What could be more chaotic…

And a CPA!

Yeah. That was done to try and free Patty Hearst, who had been kidnapped by this murderous far-left gang, and then she joined the gang and called her parents fascist insects who prey on the heart of the people. Suddenly terrorists had constituencies! It was absolutely crazy.

Two in one month, and then a couple months later, someone tries to do the same thing to Ronald Reagan. And this is a year, 1975, in which it’s easy to forget—no one remembers, actually, that there were 83 terrorist bombings on American soil, including one that kills 14 people at the LaGuardia baggage claim.

As I talk about in the book, this is on the eve of the bicentennial. People are terrified. How can we have a national birthday party with all these parties, with all these terrorists running around? How can we have a national birthday party when we have nothing to celebrate? This is what you see in the media.

Of course, what comes next is… we do! Full of ice cream, bicycles, parades, tall ships. And it’s catnip. People love it. This is part of the dynamic I describe, rising throughout the book, this retreat. This retreat from the challenges of a country that’s facing serious, serious problems.

And also addressing this problem in very mature ways. What I’m identifying is an almost infantilization of political culture. This retreat from a golden age of holding our leaders to account through things like the Watergate hearings; a golden age of conservation; a golden age of people rethinking America’s role as the world’s policeman.

But it’s also a golden age for nostalgia. Things like Happy Days. The most popular book of the year is an oral history of Harry Truman that depicts Truman in myopic ways. As this uncomplicated, straight-shooting figure— fellow Chicagoan Garry Wills debunks the hell out of this book—called Plain Speaking.

So I’m depicting this struggle between the forces of innocence and experience.

I’ve been meaning to go back and find some more on the nostalgia convention you mention in Chicago, Nostalgia ‘73.

Yeah. The AP article, I think it was, interviews this kid who’s absolutely ga-ga about, like Superman comic books from the 1930s or something like that. He’s like, “the past was so much better, yada yada.” And then they give the kicker: the guy’s like 19 years old.

The way I formulate it in the book, whether it’s nostalgia, or people joining est, or running off to communes, or this kind of political retreat—not voting, retreating into apathy—everyone wanted to be somewhere else.

Reading this after reading Nixonland, and other books about Nixon like Nixon Agonistes, which is one of my favorites—Reagan was able to synthesize the resentment with a positivity that was astonishing. And in a way that the GOP since then hasn’t quite been able to do. Prominent GOP politicians have this edge to them. How was Reagan able to do that?

It was lightning in a bottle. The fact that [Republicans] keep trying and keep failing really shows how extraordinary Ronald Reagan’s emotional intelligence was. And his self-cultivation. He really did grow up in this chaotic household: alcoholic father during Prohibition, constantly getting fired and moving the family around central Illinois. Reagan spends this year in Chicago when he’s four, in which he tells this story of him and his brother wandering off past the Midway and getting rescued by a drunk.

And then his mother, who’s absent too, but absent being a do-gooder. In Dixon, Illinois, where they settle, she’s so respected as this kind of miracle-worker—she had a reputation as a literal faith-healer—they let the ex-cons be released from prison to her sewing room.

It’s this chaotic household where there are prisoners shuttling in and out, two boys—one Catholic, one Protestant—two to a bed. These early descriptions of Reagan are of a lost boy, always drifting off. He always looks absent, he’s off in his hay loft playing with his birds’ eggs, things like that.

And you can witness this extraordinary act of will, which I trace through his reading of adventure stories, his sports fandom in the golden age of sports—heroes like Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, these larger-than-life heroes, gods on earth. He’s able to create his own alternative, mythic universe, with himself at the center.

From then on, any picture you look at of Ronald Reagan—from the age of 10 on—he’s recognizably Ronald Reagan. He has that inner grace. He seems as aware of the lines he presents to the viewer as a dancer.

The photo on the front…

It’s astonishing. Compare that to Gerald Ford, who was always falling down. He’s literally balancing between the fenders of two cars, and he looks like he’s floating as if on air. He looks like Fred Astaire.

That’s the ability to project this blithe aspect in the midst of chaos. You’ve got the Secret Service agent looking terrified, disheveled reporters looking baffled, and he looks like he’s in his own universe.

And his ability, not just to act the hero when the occasion demands, but to create situations in which he can display his heroism is a remarkable quality. Like FDR, it’s a once in several generations phenomenon. This charisma, this ability to become someone people are willing to follow.

But by the same token, he’s a polarizing figure. The other half of the country considers him a fraud, a phony, a toady. That division goes all the way back to high school and college.

That reminded me of LBJ, reading Robert Caro on his early life; Caro found people who thought he was the fakest man they’d ever met.

I ran into an extraordinary series of interviews with Reagan’s college classmates and teachers, taken in 1966, by the journalist Ralph Keyes for an article that was never published, and he was good enough to share those with me. This was 1966, when he’s won the Republican nomination, before his political career has been established. It’s almost like a natural experiment of what people thought about Ronald Reagan before they read about Ronald Reagan in the newspapers, and thought of him as the public image. And they divide almost exactly in that way.

One of his college classmates says “I didn’t think he was smart enough to be cynical.” And others saying “I would have followed him to the ends of the earth.” That’s Ronald Reagan right there.

My big subject as a historian is how Americans divide themselves. What are the divisions that structure our political lives. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were perfect foils for that story.

People thought he was dumb his entire career. Even people who…

…got their ass kicked by him?

And recognized that they could get their ass kicked by him. Recognized his presence, his emotional intelligence, his quick thinking. They still thought he was dumb.

Richard Nixon thought he was dumb. In 1971 there’s an Oval Office conversation between him and Kissinger, talking about how they can’t possibly imagine him sitting in this chair, he’d start a nuclear war. And then, lo and behold, in 1973, during the Yom Kippur war, they’re facing this geostrategic dilemma, in which the Egyptian government keeps claiming that they’re shooting down Israeli planes that they’re not really shooting down, and they give Ronald Reagan a call—what they call in politics a “stroking” call, and Ronald Reagan says, “oh, it’s easy, just say that you’ll replace all the planes that Egypt claims to have shot down on a one-to-one basis.”

And suddenly, no more problem. And Kissinger says, “I wish I had someone that smart on my staff.”

By the opposite token, Jimmy Carter’s strategy in 1980, all [Carter’s team] wants to do, they’re certain they could just have the election in the bag if they could just get Ronald Reagan on the stage and debate him, and people would see how shallow and stupid he was.

They do. It comes a week before the election. From that moment forward, Reagan takes the lead and builds it into a landslide. How dumb is that? Who’s the stupid one there?

Since you bring up Carter, I wanted to talk about him. Reading the book, Carter is almost presented as an analog to Reagan.

Right. They both speak to this post-Watergate mood of people who want to believe, people who want to transcend a brokenness of a sad political present.

And he’s presented in kind of the same way as Reagan—except more self-consciously cynical.

He’s smart enough to be cynical. There’s no question about it.

Like his speechwriter, Bob Shrum, who bailed on him after nine days, and said, “this guy is a cynical politician who lies all the time.” I sort of bought the myth on Carter, I guess.

The fascinating thing about Carter—there’s an article that comes out about him in Harper’s in March of 1976 called “Jimmy Carter’s Pathetic Lies.” His campaign promise was “I will never lie to you"—this post-Watergate political imperative. I’m going to restore the broken trust. And it exposes lie after lie after lie. And has no effect whatsoever.

Even more strikingly, it has no effect on his cadre of liberal supporters, who are absolutely convinced they’ve found a liberal savior, and once he’s elected they’re going to have national health insurance in a heartbeat.

Very similar to the kind of trust that liberals placed in Barack Obama. You know the saying, “conservatives fall in line, liberals fall in love.” This untested, inexperienced, figure who’s the answer to all our woes. Of course, nothing was a simple answer in the 1970s. There’s no way Carter could have achieved a fix of the political system in one term anyway.

He inherited colossal problems from his Republican forebears. And solved a lot of them. The reason inflation was brought down to manageable levels, by the time of Ronald Reagan’s re-election, was directly attributable to Jimmy Carter’s very courageous act, hiring a Federal Reserve chair, with the charge to induce a recession.

That recession was probably the reason he didn’t win a second term. And it’s a policy that Ronald Reagan endorsed by reappointing Paul Volcker, and then was able to win a landslide in 1984 based on a recovery that that shock therapy caused, even while he was blaming it all on Jimmy Carter. It returns to Reagan’s ability to convincingly divide the world into good guys and bad guys, without a scintilla of doubt or nuance. An extraordinary political ability, and a huge difference from Jimmy Carter, who saw everything in nuanced terms, and really demanded a sterner morality from Americans.

He most famously gave a speech late in 1979, much like Gerald Ford, which said the State of the Union is not good. He really dwelled on the negativity in the American mood. He told the truth. You might say, like Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, Americans couldn’t handle the truth.

I’m curious what you think about Obama’s rhetoric in the context of Reagan. He’s talked about admiring Reagan as a politician; he seems to borrow a lot of his approach from Reagan.

Right. But he hasn’t learned the most important political lesson: in times of historic distrust of the previous political party, that you can create a transformational change in the electorate, as Roosevelt did by blaming it all on Hoover, and Reagan did by blaming it all on Carter. By writing a full stop to a political era.

Obama, in his “there is no blue America, there is no red America” guise, has refused to do it. We faced an experiment in the last six or seven years of the Bush term, all three branches of the government being controlled by conservative Republicans. And the results were, all around us, smoking ruins.

But instead of saying that the problem is a conservative party that has been captured by extremists, he tried to reach out and turn the same people into negotiating partners, people who had no interest in negotiating with him.

Where he shares a rhetorical approach with Reagan is something I find very dangerous. On the galleys, I quote him on the back. (Some people think I got a blurb from Obama; I didn’t. He did read Nixonland, but I don’t think he took it to heart.) So I quote him saying, at the 2012 convention, “We keep our eyes fixed on that distant horizon knowing that providence is with us and that we are surely blessed to be citizens of the greatest nation on earth.”

If we believe that we’re the greatest nation earth, what room is there for improvement? How can we face these structural problems that are devastating to our future if we believe we’re already perfect?

An example: Barack Obama appointed a brilliant human-rights advocate and Harvard professor, Samantha Power, to be his United Nations ambassador early in 2013. She was questioned by Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican and presidential aspirant, about a magazine article she published a decade earlier in which she wrote that American foreign policy “needed a historical reckoning with crimes committed, sponsored, or permitted by the United States.” Just the kind of reckoning that I think was happening in a very productive way in the 1970s.

So Rubio says, “What crimes are you referring to?”

And in this utter non sequitur right out of the Reagan playbook, she says, “America is the greatest country on earth, and we have nothing to apologize for.” If that’s the pro forma every politician has to make in order to ascend to the pinnacle of national leadership, I think we have a real civic problem on our hands.

The problem is this retreat into this infantilizing politics. Senator Al Franken used to say that Republicans love their country like little children love their mommy. I think we can do better. One of the civic missions of this book is to tell the story of how that attitude came to be, and what the opportunity costs of that attitude were. What if we had really taken to heart the idea that getting into a counterinsurgency war thousands of miles away was a dangerous thing to do? Then we wouldn’t be reckoning with the ruins of Iraq, a counterinsurgency created by the violence we wracked there. Now we see journalists’ heads getting cut off.

It’s hard to learn lessons when you believe there are no lessons to learn.

Speaking of how unbreakably positive Reagan could be, I was surprised at how much he minimized Watergate. That would have been the lowest-hanging fruit of all the things that happened in the 1960s and 1970s.

Yeah, it was stunning. Transcripts of the Nixon tapes come out, and everyone’s talking about how they reveal the White House to be a combination between a sewer and a mafia den, and Reagan shrugged his shoulders, and says, “We can’t really know until we read all of it; I don’t really understand it.” He says the Watergate burglars were not criminals at heart, and it was a shame they had to go to jail. Or he’d say it was a lynching that liberals were taking out against the mandate of 1972, a witch-hunt.

Two months before Nixon resigns, that summer when his approval rating was 20 percent, every sentient political actor is distancing himself from him. Ronald Reagan’s aides are freaking out, because their boss, who they want to make president, refuses to distance himself from Nixon. And if there’s one historical insight that this book has, it’s that attitude, that refusal to even acknowledge negativity in America present or past, was the soul of Ronald Reagan’s appeal. That was the feature, it wasn’t the bug.

The same way he said in 1980 that Vietnam was a noble cause. The media all reported that as a gaffe. But I’m sure it gained him many more votes than it lost, because it absolved the American people from reckoning with the cost of the Vietnam War.

I was reading this and trying to figure out: Is it instinctual? Is it an act of will?

No, I think it’s really deep in his heart. Richard Nixon, because we have the tapes, we can hear him literally strategizing about how to bamboozle the American people. With Ronald Reagan we don’t find those smoking guns. This is who he is, this is what he believes. It goes all the way down.

I don’t believe he was not smart enough to be cynical, but I believe it’s a fact he wasn’t a cynical person. It’s hard for liberals to get their mind around that.

I can see your bafflement.

Well, he’s such a slippery figure. Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, they’re such compellingly Shakespearean figures, wracked by their past, by intrigue and power. But it comes up very early in the book, Nancy Reagan saying that no one was ever really able to get inside Ronald Reagan. Was that hard for you to work with?

No, it wasn’t. Once you wrap your mind around the adult children of alcoholics trying to negotiate the chaos of their lives, they form their characters around that. That’s a very strong foundation for understanding.

Most people who cover up their inner wounds with this hard shell of fantasy, once that shell faces adult reality, it cracks, and the result is often trauma and neurosis. I call Reagan an “athlete of the imagination.” He worked out in that mental gymnasium ten times harder than us mortals, right? His shell ended up going all the way down. 

He was able to use that set of resources and skills he brought in order to do some pretty powerful things, in order to manage and negotiate and the political and social situations around him in a strikingly effective way, and lead quite effectively. I think previous biographers thought they could crack the shell open and get at the real Reagan. I think this is the real Reagan. There are people like that.

I’m haunted and struck by a story that Ron Reagan tells in his wonderful memoir, My Father at 100. He said that, when his dad was toward the end and wracked by dementia and Alzheimers, he’d wake up in the middle of the night with a start and say “the guys need me, the guys need me.” As Ron points out, it wasn’t that the guys needed him on the set of a Warner Brothers film, or the White House situation room, it was the guys in the locker room needed him on the football film.

It really just kind of shows that, at the deepest levels of his being, this projection of himself as a hero on the field of battle went all the way down, for good or ill.

I wanted to ask you about the rightward turn in the Democratic party; someone asked you about it on the Reddit AMA. Is Carter where it starts?

Yes. One of its roots was surprisingly enough the New Left’s turn away from New Deal politics and union politics. And it comes out of the extraordinary prosperity of the 1960s. It just doesn’t seem as important to have a Democratic party that’s kind of running interference and factory workers. Prosperity is so universal it seems like you could drop out of high school, burn down a building against the Vietnam War and end up with a job at GM the next day.

So you see in the class of politicians called the “Watergate babies” who are elected to Congress in 1974, this indifference to the New Deal tradition. Most strikingly in the case of Gary Hart, who says “we’re not a bunch of little Hubert Humphries,” and derides old-fashioned Democrats as Eleanor Roosevelt Democrats. He doesn’t think this New Deal tradition has anything to say to people in the 1970s.

The striking tragedy of that is this is right at the moment in which our current trend towards inequality and economic insecurity of the middle class is just beginning. When you need that muscular economic populism the most, you’re beginning to see the fashionable Democrats in full retreat from it. You see that certainly in the case of Jimmy Carter, who in many ways was a Southern conservative, who had contempt for the transactional nature of the New Deal tradition. Winning votes by building dams, creating jobs, and all the rest. It’s seen as an embarrassing relic of dirtier political times. It’s one of the paradoxes and ironies of these moments.

One of the things that surprised me the most was your passage on Jerry Brown.

[Laughs.] What a cat. Often considered one of the great political cynics.

I became politically aware in the early 1990s when he re-emerged as a national political figure, and he was treated as a hippie.

He spoke like a hippie. He said that we had to give up the idea that economic growth was the goal society should be pursuing. He talked about limits. He talked about how the planet could disappear. He said this stuff, and he would get huge ovations.

That was a real moment in 1970s politics, in which people were almost embracing what I call “hairshirt patriotism.” He made a very late run at the presidency in 1976 and started winning primaries left and right. It was a strange road not taken in American politics, which was seen as the wave of the future. When Denver celebrated when it didn’t get the Olympics because it would be bad for the environment. That politics of skepticism towards economic growth didn’t survive the era of stagflation and ten percent unemployment.

That “small is beautiful moment” seemed like it was yoked to neoliberal economics.

Yes, he was a fan of lots of neoliberal economists, who were saying that government can’t do the good that people thought it could do, which is particularly ironic, because his father Pat Brown built the California middle class by doing things like building dams, building roads, building universities. And here’s his son, who sleeps on a mattress on the floor and drives a Plymouth instead of a limousine, and refuses to move into the governor’s mansion, and is celebrated as a hero.

It was kind of a confused time in American politics. And the guy who ends up winning is the guy who ends up winning is the guy who cuts through the confusion and presents these clear answers.

It reminds me of Democrats who run on austerity as a means of purging the problems of government.

Pundits love that. Unfortunately it’s austerity for thee, not for me. It’s very hard to distinguish the brand of austerity that Rahm Emanuel claims to be selling from the upward redistribution of wealth through TIFs and subsidies to people like DePaul. It’s a complicated question I haven’t quite gotten my mind around. There’s a lot of tributaries.

If you take it back to the rise of the Right, business interests became much more self-conscious and politically active. One historian calls it a “union of capital” during that period. ALEC, the Powell memo, the Business Roundtable. Corporate profits were declining. The blue-chip corporation that had been instrumental in the postwar Keynesian consensus suddenly cast their lots with the smaller corporations that were much more eager to follow Goldwater’s prescriptions. That was a shift that a lot of historians are working on now.

The book covers some of the ground you’ve written about in your previous books, with some of the same characters. Was there anything that surprised you in researching or writing this one?

Ronald Reagan’s to-the-wall defense of Richard Nixon. No one ever pointed that out before.

And the bottomless sense of chaos and the lies that wracked society. As I’m canvassing my own memories, one thing I remember is that the news was just really scary. Partly that was the media—news programs were an eat-your-spinach proposition, they didn’t have Katie Couric saying chirpy things, because the news divisions were allowed to lose money.

But whenever those old white men were on your television set for half an hour every night, you could just expect to be sad.

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